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Interview: Professor Joanna Price, vice-chancellor of the RAU

PUBLISHED: 11:30 14 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:30 14 May 2019

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester

© Thousand Word Media

Brexit, increasing financial demands, upheaval in the education and agricultural sectors - all problems that Professor Joanna Price, vice-chancellor of the RAU, has to solve. And she still has time for a Cotswold life...

Professor Joanna Price still pinches herself as she drives up the lime-tree-lined approach to the Royal Agricultural University, which she has led as vice-chancellor since 2016. It's not surprising. Not only is the university a jewel in the crown of land-based institutions; it's also the place where her father studied, post-war, before setting up the smallholding where Jo spent her childhood.

But her job is not without its challenges. Indeed, some would say she's leading the university at a time of unprecedented upheaval in the higher education and agricultural sectors: climate change, Brexit, increasing financial demands, and far greater scrutiny on the value a university education can provide.

"But the fact that we're a small, specialist institution in this land-based sector, at a time of incredible change in the agriculture environment, presents as many opportunities as it does challenges," Jo says.

The university - known as the RAU - is developing a whole raft of new courses for its student community of 1200 (and growing), hailing from 40 countries world-wide. These innovations include two-year degrees, distance-learning, and an MBA to suit everyone, from bankers wanting to learn more about food and farming, to people looking to improve their leadership skills.

Jo was previously head of Bristol University's veterinary school. She is married to Professor Lance Lanyon CBE, a distinguished academic and principal of the Royal Veterinary College in London until 2004.

Her son Barnaby Elmhirst - an alumnus of the RAU and former Student Union president - now serves in the Yorkshire Regiment.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Coates, in a house that's everything I like about Cotswold houses. Mark Horton - Professor of Archaeology at Bristol University - came round for supper and was able to look at the beams. He thinks it has elements of a medieval longhouse; and there are stones supposedly from Cirencester Abbey in the walls, along with parts of a 12th-century bishop's 'head'! The university is working with Mark on new courses around heritage that will be based in Swindon.

I was brought up on a smallholding in West Wales so it's absolutely great to be living in a country village like Coates. My husband took more persuading as he likes to be able to walk to a shop.

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, with students Florence Deasy, Emily Webb, Rosie Ford and Fi DallynJo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, with students Florence Deasy, Emily Webb, Rosie Ford and Fi Dallyn

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I came here in September 2016 and lived in Cecily Hill, Cirencester, for a year until we sold our house. Academics have a peripatetic existence, so I suppose we've been more nomadic than most. Coming to this part of the world means I get back that sense of community I grew up with in Wales, where everybody knows you; you're everybody's business! We still have a house down there.

My father was a farmworker, who left school at 14 and went off to the Second World War. He came here [to the Royal Agricultural College, as it then was] to do a diploma in agriculture, thanks to grants given to ex-servicemen after the war. The 50s were a time of powerful agricultural revolution - land was cheap - which brought lots of new people into farming: an interesting parallel to what's happening now, although land prices have yet to fall to allow more new entrants into the sector.

My parents tried to lead a romantic lifestyle on 30 acres on a cliff in North Pembrokeshire, but my mother finally persuaded my father he needed to get a 'proper job'. So he went to work for the Milk Marketing Board as a consulting officer, and looked after the smallholding - cows and sheep - after work. I used to help him; and I had a pony from the age of four; so I suppose I was always animal-orientated. My parents were passionate about the land.

What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

When I was young, I wanted to be a professional horse-rider. My mother, however, was a sensible woman, who persuaded me I'd be better off treating horses! I'm still a keen rider, so my perfect weekend would involve taking my horse, Alfie, to a competition. One-day eventing - little jumps - is what I do (badly) at beautiful locations like Ascott-under-Wychwood and Broadway. There's nothing better than going out on a nice summer day and not falling off or getting eliminated. It's difficult to articulate exactly what that horse/human bond is. Wearing my scientific hat, it's been reassuring, in recent years, to see growing evidence that working with horses is therapeutic, whether that's for ex-military or for people who've had difficult times. When I'm riding, everything else is blanked out.

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

Ridiculous answer, but Badminton House. I first came to the Cotswolds - on a bus from Pony Club - aged seven, to Badminton Horse Trials. I thought to myself: One day I'm going to marry a man who lives in a house like that and I'm going to ride my pony up the drive. It didn't happen!

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in CirencesterJo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

I wouldn't be a valley-dweller, with no view and no sunshine.

Where's the best pub in the area?

My favourite round here is the Tunnel [House Inn at Coates]. My son, Barny, came here to university; we weren't allowed to visit very often but we were allowed to the Tunnel to buy him Sunday lunch.

And the best place to eat?

The Village Pub in Barnsley. I've been to Barnsley House, too, which is really nice - but somebody else was paying!

What would you do for a special occasion?

My favourite university occasion is graduation: the pinnacle of the year. And the one we do here is particularly special because we do it in town, in Cirencester church [St John the Baptist]. My predecessor, Professor Chris Gaskell, built a close relationship with Leonard [Rev Canon Leonard Doolan, previously the vicar, now the Anglican Church's representative in Athens], and they decided between them they'd move the ceremony from campus to church, bringing gown closer to town. I know, with my son's own graduation in summer 16, that it feels really special. But it's also important for us to go out into the community and have the community come here. Forest Green Rovers youth academy is playing in our grounds today; another weekend, we'll be booked as a wedding or a festival venue. We aspire to make an ever-increasing contribution to local community - particularly in terms of jobs - as well as to the national community.

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in CirencesterJo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester

What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?

I'm always struck by how beautiful the stone is.

... and the worst?

We were in the Maasai Mara last year and got better phone signal.

Which shop could you not live without?

Waitrose in Cirencester because I don't get out enough. I'm lucky enough to have met and know many of our students; but I do smile at every young person I meet, just in case.

What's the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

We don't celebrate enough our amazing network of universities: Bath, Bath Spa, Hartpury - the newest university in the country - Gloucestershire, us. And we've also got places such as Campden BRI, doing so much around innovation and learning about food. There's a natural assumption that you go away to university; but I'd like people to think very hard about what is on their doorstep. Keeping young people in careers in this area is crucial. There's an amazing plethora of employers, who often struggle to find people with the right skills.

Jo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in CirencesterJo Price, Vice Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

An innovative conservative.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I tend not to be a domestic goddess at the moment because I don't have time. But there's fantastic food in this area. A Gloucestershire starter would be gamey - pheasant terrine. I love Gloucestershire Old Spot roast pork. The alternative would be some of the best beef I've ever had, from Chris Verey at Ampney Down Farm where I keep my horse. I'm not a pudding person so I'd finish with a selection of local cheese, all accompanied by Cotswold Hills Dry White, which we make at our vineyard at the university. Even for a slightly fussy Sauvignon Blanc drinker, it is good.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

I still pinch myself, coming down our Tetbury Road entrance along the lime drive. Perhaps it's the symmetry of the building; or perhaps it's the familiarity. My father had a picture of the place, so it's been imprinted on my mind since childhood.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

I'm going to be loyal to Coates, with its wide range of people - some of whom have lived here a very long time - and its lovely old church. It could do with more starter homes, though we do have some modern houses.

So my ideal village would be Coates...but with a shop.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...

There's a synergy between what the university stands for and the environment we're in. In other words, for both the university and the Cotswolds I'd say:

A sense of tradition and heritage;

A desire to serve the industry that created us: farmers started this university in 1845;

And an ability to embrace change and be innovative. More than 10 percent of our students set up their own businesses. We have an annual 'Dragons' Den', judged by people like Levi Roots and Julian Dunkerton.

What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

The Alliston Centre, a £5m building based around supporting businesses and creating jobs. It's named after one of our professors - John Alliston, who sadly died in 2017 - and includes our Farm491 project helping small agri-tech companies to grow and develop, and part of the Gloucestershire Growth Hub that supports a whole range of small businesses. People can go there and see what the future looks like.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

My husband's response was: Take your clothes off in public.

Starter homes or executive properties?

If you're going to enable young people to stay, and to preserve communities, clearly it's starter homes. You need to make them fit in as well as you can and be built from sustainable materials, but they have to be provided. You also need homes for people moving to this area - this is a difficult part of the world to recruit in as houses are expensive - and for people who've worked on the land, looking gracefully to retire in the communities where they've always lived.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

The corners of our Cotswold community, in terms of where students come from, are:

Scotland, Australia, America and Africa.

If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

I've travelled a lot but the only place I permanently lived was Singapore, in my mid-20s, working as a vet with small animals and polo ponies. Nowadays, I'd take something to remind me of here: The History of the Royal Agricultural College by Roger Sayce, which I'm sorry to say I've never had time to read cover to cover.

What's the first piece of advice you'd give somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Make sure you try the wonderful range of local food.

And which book should they read?

Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

I've a bad back so I don't walk - but we'll do a ride instead. There's a headland on the farm at Ampney Down, which epitomises all that's wonderful about Cotswold countryside. You'll invariably get kites or buzzards flying above you. You don't see a road, and you never see people.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

Badminton Horse Trials. I'll never get over my aspiration to ride around Badminton - not that I'm ever going to do it - but they do have a small-jump course for amateurs.

If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

I'd sit in the Atrium, a social area and café at the RAU, listening to what our students really think about their experience of university - though preferably not too late at night.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

One of my heroes was Mike Tucker, the famous commentator. We were fortunate enough to have him on our governing council, and he was incredibly kind and supportive to me when I arrived. He died suddenly and too young. The memorial should be Mike, with his microphone, situated somewhere the horsy fraternity meet, such as Gatcombe.

The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?

We need young people here; we need jobs. We don't need Disneyland.

Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

An ability to embrace what life has to offer.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

I'm going to alienate myself from a significant proportion of Cotswold women - but Jeremy Clarkson. I was very struck with an article I read about his farm, in the Times. He'd be a fantastic ambassador - he has such resonance with the young - for attracting people into careers in food and farming.

Also, he has a soft spot for Range Rovers and I've got a very old one.

The Royal Agricultural University is at Stroud Road, Cirencester GL7 6JS; rau.ac.uk.

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